Graphic Classics Brings African-American Classics to Comics

coverEureka Productions' Graphic Classics series has been showcasing unique comic book adaptations of classic literature for the past ten years. The most recent volume, Graphic Classics Volume 22: African-American Classics (978-0-98256-304-5, $17.95), pairs early African-American writers with contemporary writers and artists, providing a new way for readers to discover important works by Zora Neale Hurston, Charles W. Chestnutt and others. We spoke to African-American Classics editor Lance Tooks and Graphic Classics series editor Tom Pomplun about their work on this collection and thoughts on future volumes. (Preview pages from the volume are shown after the interview.)


BookShelf: How did this project come about?

Tom Pomplun: For me, the roots of this volume were in a discussion I had years ago with Graphic Classics artist Mary Fleener. The normal scope of classic literature in English language tends to be primarily white males. I was telling Mary that I wanted to include more female writers in the series, and she suggested Zora Neale Hurston. Years ago, Mary had done a comic adapting some of Hurston's voodoo stories, which she sent me. I read and enjoyed that, then read all the other Hurston stories I could find. I then went on to discover other great writers from the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes and Rudolph Fisher.

Some time later I was discussing a different Graphic Classics project with Lance Tooks when I mentioned my idea for the Hurston volume. He stated that his dream project was to do a book of stories by the Dunbars; Paul Laurence Dunbar and his wife Alice Dunbar Nelson. I thought about this for several days after, and decided that we might fill both goals by making Hurston and the Dunbars part of a GC volume dedicated to early black authors. It seemed to me that there was nothing previously done in the comics field that was comparable. When I brought up the idea with Lance, he enthusiastically agreed, and I asked him to co-edit.

Lance Tooks: I'm honored to have been a contributor to the Graphic Classics series for several years now. Tom has, from this series' inception, taken the greatest writers in the world, from Poe to Twain, Wilde to Lovecraft, and placed them in the hands of some of the most unique contemporary cartoonists. Their approaches range from faithful to irreverent, but none of his contributors has ever been indifferent to their source works, adapting them with personal flavor and verve. (Imitation series are springing up everywhere as we speak, not necessarily a bad thing!) So when Tom and I discussed the possibility of a volume adapting never-before-seen-in-comics authors like Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar and W.E.B. DuBois into the GC format, I was thrilled at the prospect that readers of all ages might be exposed to such a brilliant group of writers for the first time. He asked me to share the responsibility of editing the project with him, a privilege I truly couldn't refuse. Helping to create this book has been a blast for me, and I can't wait for the whole world to see it!

There is quite a variety of material collected in this volume, with comics adapted from prose, poetry and plays rendered in different artistic styles. What was your process for selecting artists, writers and material to adapt?

Tom Pomplun: The original material was researched and selected over nearly a year of reading by Lance and myself. Lance was familiar with many of the authors, while most were new to me. We each narrowed down a list of possibilities, then read the selections in each other's list. We then came to a consensus that included a wide range of poems and story genres and would fit in the 144 pages that are standard to the GC series.

While I thought the selections in this volume would be best interpreted by black artists and writers, I also scripted several stories myself, as I do in all GC volumes. There were a few stories that I had a particularly clear vision of, or thought would be particularly tricky to adapt to comics. As publisher, I was in the enviable position of deciding which pieces I would do myself.

The rest of the scripter and artist selections were made by me, in consultation with Lance. I of course included artists Milton Knight and Stan Shaw, who have been regular contributors to the series for years. Others I found through referrals and research in publications and on the web. John Jennings and Damian Duffy's collection Black Comix was an invaluable resource. Lance has had many contacts and collaborators over his comics career and he was able to bring a number of creators into the project.

Lance Tooks: Tom and I gathered short stories and poems from various sources, both in print and online. In choosing both our classic authors and modern artists we each created a pool of names from which we selected a veritable "dream team" of contributors. These artists, all of whom are African-American, have long dreamed of being a part of such a project, and have rendered each tale with great care and respect.

After deciding which poems and stories to adapt, we paired each story with scripters, then each piece with three potential artists that we thought might do it justice. In hindsight we had incredible luck, because in most cases our first choices were more than enthusiastic about the project. In only a few instances creators apologetically refused us, owing to prior work commitments

Why adapt classic literature into comics? How did creating these adaptations affect your interpretation and understanding of the original text?

Lance Tooks: I feel that we are part of a long tradition of adapting works of literature into song, into theater, into dance, into movies, into comics... it's a natural desire for any storyteller to want to retell and reinterpret the myths and stories that inspired him. Many classic works now considered literature are themselves reiterations of older myths and legends. This opportunity to "collaborate" with the grand old talespinning masters has taught me a lot about what makes a great story, improving my own creative skills in the process. Every contributor to African-American Classics brings his own life experience to their adaptation, choosing which things to emphasize or exclude from the finished work. Subtext in the stories can be brought to the surface in the art, things with one intended interpretation when originally written can reveal different meanings to our current generation, nearly a century later. At their core, these are wonderful, entertaining stories, with much to say about America and the events that brought us all to where we are now as a nation.

Where can readers find out more about the writers and artists included in this book?

Tom Pomplun: There are short bios of all the original authors, as well as the modern scripters and artists who created the adaptations in the back of this book, as in all GC volumes. If you go to the GC website (www.graphicclassics.com) on the home page you will find a link to our Creator Bios and Samples page. There you will see a listing of individual pages for all the series' authors and contributors. Our Links page also connects to other sites for each of the authors and contributors.

African-American Classics highlights the work of early, influential African-American writers, as well as contemporary writers and cartoonists. If this collection could go on for an infinite number of pages, who else would you like to see included?

Lance Tooks: My only regret about the African-American Classics project has been the limit on the number of pages in the volume and thereby, the number of possible stories and contributors. There is such an abundance of great literature by unsung authors and so many remarkable cartoonists in the world right now that I can easily imagine a companion volume springing up... or even a series of books. There are too many illustrators to name, but one writer we approached early on was Dwayne McDuffie, one of the most prolific writers in comics, who turned us down apologetically owing to prior commitments. His death came as an unfortunate surprise to all, and the very last story panel in African-American Classics (my adaptation of Frances Harper's "Shalmanezer") carries a dedication to Dwayne.

Tom Pomplun: There were a number of great authors including Rudolph Fisher, Countee Cullen and Ray G. Dandridge, as well as additional works by Charles W. Chesnutt, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston which we wanted to include in this volume, but were unable to fit. So don't be surprised if there is a More African-American Classics volume in the not-too-distant future.

What's next for the Graphic Classics series?

Tom Pomplun: In April 2012 we will be releasing a revised edition of the out-of-print Graphic Classics: Robert Louis Stevenson, with a new comics adaptation of "Treasure Island" and Lance's adaptation of "The Bottle Imp". The all-new 23rd volume in the series will be Halloween Classics, scheduled for August 2012. The book is being done as an EC-style tribute, with story introductions by famed horror author Mort Castle. It features "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and, in a first for GC, an adaptation of a classic movie: "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari". And for January 2013 we are beginning work on Native American Classics, stories and poems from America's earliest authors. My co-editors for the volume are noted Native authors John E. Smelcer and Joseph Bruchac.

Tom Pomplun is the designer, editor and publisher of the Graphic Classics® series. Tom was previously the designer and co-founder of Rosebud, a nationally distributed journal of fiction, poetry and illustration, from 1993 to 2003. In 2001 he founded the Graphic Classics series, now celebrating its tenth year.

The co-editor of African-American Classics, Lance Tooks (lancetooksjournal.blogspot.com) began his comics career as a Marvel Comics assistant editor. He has also worked on more than a hundred television commercials, films and music videos as well as numerous comics. Lance's first graphic novel, Narcissa, was named one of the year's best books by Publisher's Weekly, and his four-volume Lucifer's Garden of Verses series has won two Glyph Awards. Lance moved from his native New York to Madrid, Spain, where he's now hard at work on a new and very original graphic novel.

Pages from Graphic Classics Vol. 22: African American Classics:

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